Hi ArtCurious listeners. Today’s episode is a rebroadcast from our first season and originally aired in November 2016. We’re re-releasing it now in conjunction with our second season as the action at the center of this mystery is absolutely in line with our theme of art and World War Two-- and is a particularly nice follow-up to our last episode on the Fuhrermuseum. If you’re a longtime listener to this podcast, you’re not going to want to miss this, I’m including an all-new update to this story at the end of the episode bases on some news reports-- and if you are a new listener to this show, welcome-- and I hope you really enjoy this episode. It’s truly unique in the ArtCurious back catalogue.
Just a quick announcement that this recording was made prior to the many, many improvements we’ve made to this podcast over the past year, so the production quality isn’t as great as our more recent shows. Regardless, we've cleaned it up a bit and tweaked a few things to give you a fresh listening experience. So here it is: one of our most popular episodes. What Happened to the Amber Room?
If there's one thing that I love as much as art (or more than art, depending on the day), it's traveling. When I get the opportunity to visit a new location, especially a new country, I can't be more excited to delve in and immerse myself in the sights, smells, tastes, and people around me. That pile of fried crickets from that street cart in Bangkok? Sure, I'll eat them. A moonlit tour of the monuments at Petra? Sign me up. And the legions of world-famous museums and galleries in the great cities around the world? Oftentimes I've already purchased my entrance tickets online before I have even left home. To me, there is almost nothing more wonderful than stepping across the threshold of a new museum, just waiting for the chance to get inside and see just a sample of the treasures that await visitors.
This fall, I was greeted by a thrilling opportunity- a ridiculously low air fare from the U.S. to St. Petersburg, Russia. It was too good a deal to pass up, and I snagged it. There were three things that excited me most about this trip- first was the opportunity to visit a city in a country that was completely new to me. I'd never been to Russia, and had heard of the beauty of the city formerly known as Leningrad. St. Petersburg has been called the Venice of the North, situated on picturesque canals that reflect the golden spires and onion domes that tower across the city. Secondly, St. Petersburg is the home of the Hermitage, one of the oldest, largest, and greatest art collections in the world, containing over three million precious objects. This includes a true masterpiece by one of my very favorite artists- the Return of the Prodigal Son, by Rembrandt. And thirdly, it allowed for the chance to experience the glory and and splendor of the Russian tsars through the extant palaces in St. Petersburg proper and its environs. One of the most awe-inspiring is the Catherine Palace, a rococo summer residence for the imperial families of yore, commissioned by the Empress Elizabeth in the early 18th century. And up until World War II, the Catherine palace housed something so incredible, so coveted, and so gorgeous that for hundreds of years, travelers from all over the world flocked to admire it. So extraordinary was this treasure that it was frequently referred to as the Eighth wonder of the world. And then, in the early 1940s with the nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, this priceless creation was stolen, removed from its Russian stronghold and hidden away. And to this day, it has still never been found.
Sometimes people think that visual art is dry, boring, lifeless. They might remember childhood field trips to museums stuffed with cranky old women, deathly silent galleries, and dusty golden frames hanging on the wall. But sometimes, the stories behind those paintings, sculptures, drawings and photographs are weirder, crazier, or more fun than you can imagine. Art History is full of murder, intrigue, feisty women, rebellious men, crime, insanity, and so much more. And today we are going to bring you a very special episode that looks into the history and disappearance of one of the world’s most coveted treasures: the Amber Room. Exploring the unexpected, the slightly odd, and the strangely wonderful in Art History, this is the ArtCurious Podcast. I'm Jennifer Dasal.
The opportunity to take a holiday to Russia this fall allowed me to think of this show in a new and fun way. I opted to do a little bit of work and research while I was there, and have chosen to take the ArtCurious Podcast to a new place- both literally, and figuratively. Why not record and report from Russia for the story on the Amber Room? It's a slight departure from our normal podcast style, but I've been excited to bring this to you. Much of the sounds and music that you’ll hear in today's episode was recorded onsite in and around St. Petersburg. You'll hear street performers, the murmur of tourists, the daily thrum of traffic. I hope that you enjoy hearing a little slice of another country alongside your art history today.
If you visit St Petersburg, you can travel to the outskirts of the city to the little enclave of Tsarskoye Selo, also known as Pushkin, which was the traditional summer escape of the imperial families of old. The incredible Catherine Palace is notable as it is-- and just walking around the exterior of the palace, let alone the interior, was one of the major highlights of my trip.
Once inside the palace, I discovered the most crowded rooms of any I’d yet seen during my trip to Russia. Even the Hermitage was nothing compared to the fervor I experienced as I slowly moved from gilded room to gilded room of the Catherine Palace. Large tour groups were snapping photos at every single square inch, until we came to a small sign that heralded our next room-- we were about to enter the Amber Room.
Wait, I can hear you say. I thought you told us at the beginning of the show that the Amber room was missing, that it had disappeared. Well, that's true. The original Amber room, the real deal, is indeed missing. But today, you can get a pretty accurate idea of the grandeur of the original by seeing a painstakingly precise replica. Nearly 40 years after the nazis stole the priceless original, the Soviet government commissioned a replica reconstruction, beginning in 1979. In order to facilitate the manufacture and design of the room, the government sought the expertise of 40 different amber craftsman skilled in working with the precious and rare material. Architects and engineers were able to get as close as possible to the original construction by accessing the surviving drawings and plans of that original, as well as comparing their designs with modern-day black and white photos taken of the room before world war 2. But there were huge obstacles to the reconstruction. First and foremost was the cost. Amber, that hard, golden petrification of tree resin, is considered a semiprecious stone, and like most precious and semi-precious materials, it isn't terribly easy to come by- and we'll run through the process of collecting Amber in a minute. Suffice to say, it isn't cheap. And the Amber room isn't just Amber. It also consists of gold, mirrors, and mosaics filled with other semiprecious stones such as quartz, jade, and onyx. These materials alone cost a pretty, pretty penny- or kopeck, actually. But just as serious a barrier to the completion of the new Amber room was the lack of artisans skilled in the ancient art of Amber carving and shaping, once a highly cherished ability and, by the late 20th century, nearly a lost art. Combined, these two factors meant that by the mid-1990, government funding had run out and the project screeched to a halt. The team of craftsmen and women hired by the master Amber artist Alexander Krylov threatened to leave their posts, because, you know, it's good to get a salary. And so with the money gone, there was nothing to do but wait for a miracle.
And luckily, the miracle came. As the New York Times noted in December 2001, quote, “The outcome has been curiously appropriate. While the Germans built the Amber Room, gave it to Russia as a gift and eventually stole it, the circle now comes full with German money paying to complete the Amber Room's reconstruction.” Almost as if a gift from heaven, a $3.5 million donation came in from Ruhrgas, Germany's largest natural gas company. An alliance between Russia and Germany brought about the original Amber Room, and now facilitated completion of the new Amber Room, which finally opened to the public in 2003, just in time to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the city's founding.
St Petersburg is a city built on a mosquito-infested swamp. Really. And its location isn't so great, weather-wise, either. Its central river, the Neva, flows through the city before hitting the nearby gulf of Finland, and the combination of the gulf and river made the area cold, wet, and ridiculously prone to flooding. But in 1703, the Russian tsar Peter the great apparently didn't care about these silly little details. He wanted to build an incredible new city, a new Russian capital of the north, and one that was far closer, geographically, aesthetically, and spiritually, to its urban counterparts like Paris and Rome, than to the actual Russian capital of Moscow, 400 kilometers to the south. this new city would be really and truly European, and Peter the great was sure that the founding of this grand new metropolis was God’s will. According to legend--or at least one version of the legend, as I heard many variations while in Russia- Peter saw a majestic eagle hovering overhead while standing on a spit of land, a sure sign from the lord that this should be the new home for the greatest empire in the world. The tsar then cut two strips of soil with his bayonet and arranged them in the shape of a cross, over which he planted a second cross made out of nearby twigs. This, he decreed, would be the site of the very first building of the new golden capital, his Rome, Peter called it. It would be named after the apostle St. Peter, the tsar’s namesake… Or really, it was probably named after Peter the great himself, with the term “Saint” slapped on either as a smokescreen for the tsar's egotism, or as a way of further self-promotion. What's greater than great? Well, how about Saint?
Around the same time period that Peter was staking his claim for what would become St. Petersburg, close to one thousand miles away, plans for a one of a kind royal masterpiece were already underway in a different and equally powerful kingdom. The queen of Prussia, Sophie Charlotte, had big ideas about the decoration of the royal residence of Charlottenburg palace in Berlin. She convinced her husband, King Frederick, to hire sculptor and architect Andreas Schlüter to come up with a concept for a startlingly gorgeous room- one filled with large panels of glowing, golden Amber from the Baltic Sea.
I promised I’d share a little bit of information about how amber is made and harvested, so here’s a quick primer: what we know today as amber is hardened or fossilized tree resin from ancient pines that once covered Europe millions of years ago, particularly dating from the Cretaceous and Tertiary periods-- so if your knowledge of amber as a product mainly stems from Jurassic Park, as mine did when I was young, then you’ll see that Michael Crichton’s book was most definitely misnamed, but I guess Cretaceous Park doesn't have quite as nice a ring to it. Anyhow, once these pine trees died or were felled by any variety of natural causes, many of them were carried off and away by rivers to coastal regions. Once washed to the beaches, the trees and their resins became covered with sediment and buried deeper and deeper, and over millions of years that resin eventually hardened into what we now call amber. Cut to human existence, where amber has been prized for jewelry and for folk medicinal remedies for thousands of years. And like anything else done in this world prior to the industrial revolution, harvesting amber was a painstaking process. Amber has to be quarried and collected by hand or else dredged up by divers, who would surface with handfuls of crusted stones that need to be polished and smoothed down before the delicate quote-unquote Baltic gold could be revealed inside.
In terms of location, the Samland coast near Königsberg, Prussia, was the world's leading source of amber through the nineteenth century, so there is certainly a type of homegrown pride inherent in Queen Sophie Charlotte’s request to have Schluter create a room full of Amber. And the location of most of amber mining in the world-- up to 90% of it, in fact-- still comes from this region, which would eventually become part of Russia, known as the Kaliningrad Oblast in 1946.
When Andreas Schluter finally completed his amber room with the help of Danish amber sculptor Gottfried Wolfram in either 1707 or 1709, as accounts vary, it was actually not installed at Charlottenburg as originally planned, but were sent to be displayed at the Berlin City Palace. But even that location proved to be temporary. King Frederick’s successor, frederick William the first, wasn't terribly interested in the aesthetic side of life, and much preferred to busy himself with military might. So when Peter the Great completed a diplomatic visit from Russia in 1716 and greatly and vocally admired the room, Frederick william decided to simply give him the room. Not only was it an extremely generous gift, but it helped to forge a strong alliance between the two empires, both of whom particularly sought to align themselves against Sweden, a sworn enemy. Writing home, Peter proudly proclaimed his pleasure at the gift, alerting his family that he was given the quote “amber study which I have so desired.”
Back in St. Petersburg, Peter and his wife, Catherine the First of Russia, awaited the deconstruction, shipment, and reconstruction and orientation of their generous new acquisition from Berlin, which eventually arrived via 18 gigantic crates. Peter oversaw the room’s transfer to the Winter Palace on the banks of the Neva river as a part of his small but growing European art collection. In the meantime, his wife Catherine, like the Prussian queen Sophie Charlotte, had some vast ideas of her own, and as much as she enjoyed her royal life, she still wanted an occasional breather from royal duties and city life. It is said that Catherine was compassionate and kind but also persuasive and powerful, accompanying her husband on military missions and political campaigns to great success. The French writer Voltaire, in his book about Peter the Great, even noted that Catherine was said to have saved the Russian empire at one point when Peter’s troops were under siege from Turkish armies by convincing the invading Ottomans into a retreat by offering her jewels as a bribe.
In 1717, Catherine planted the seed of what would eventually become the Catherine Palace that we know today in Pushkin. She hired a German architect named Johann-Friedrich Braunstein to construct a new home- a summer residence where Catherine, her family, and her courtiers could escape city life. She enjoyed this new space for about ten years, until her death at age 46 in 1727.
Catherine and Peter had twelve children, but only two girls- Anna and Elisabeth-- survived into adulthood. Elizabeth, who would eventually reign as empress, enjoyed her mother Catherine’s palace, but it wasn't quite enough- she wanted more of it. Indeed, Elizabeth is mainly known through history today for her exceedingly opulent tastes. In 1733, she commissioned an expansion of the palace, but even that wouldn't prove to be enough. Elizabeth sought something grander and more impressive. How better to proclaim Russia’s dominance and wealth to foreign ambassadors than through the splendor of an all-new, dazzling structure? So in May 1752, Elizabeth ordered the old building to be destroyed and construction once again began. Four years later, the new and improved Catherine palace was complete and courtiers were said to be stupefied by the ostentatious rococo design, a confection of sculpted stucco bolstered by 100 kilograms of gold leaf.
As if the ostentation of the exterior of the new Catherine palace wasn't enough, the interior itself was spectacular, too. And Elisabeth had another impressive trick up her sleeve- she had opted to move and reinstall the amber room as the pinnacle of her glorious architectural achievement. The previous location of the Amber Room, she thought, wasn't nearly spectacular enough, so really, she was doing the treasure itself a favor by giving it a more suitable home. The process of the reconstruction of the Amber room in the Catherine palace took ten years, as it was transferred to a larger space that required more Amber and more semiprecious stones to fill the space. And it also demanded a little creativity from Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli, the Franco-Italian architect credited with creating the opulent and baroque capital that St. Petersburg became. Rastrelli was given the challenge of making the original Amber Room fit in a new location that was too big for it-- the Prussian creation was dwarfed by its new surroundings. But Rastrelli was determined to make it work, and in the process made the new and improved Amber Room even that much more extravagant. He aligned the primary amber panels symmetrically on the middle level of the walls, opting to separate them with decorative architectural elements, such as stone pilasters and shining mirrors, to heighten their effect. To cap it all off, he completed the overall design with woodcarvings embellished with gold leaf. And then came the lighting of the room. In the centuries before the harnessing of electricity, the Amber Room was lit by precisely five hundred and sixty five candles, creating an eye-boggling golden glow, suffusing every corner with warmth. Some even said that the room exuded a mystical light and energy, making it an otherworldly place. By the time it reached completion, around 1755, the room was nearly 600 square feet in size and contained over 6 tons of precious Amber. At the time of its debut at the Catherine palace, it was estimated that the Amber room was worth over 145 million of today's dollars.
This isn't to say that the subsequent monarchs didn't want to play with the display a little bit, too. The most significant alteration occurred less than twenty years later, by Empress Catherine the Second-- you probably know her as Catherine the Great, the longest-ruling female leader in Russian history. Catherine loved the Amber Room, but like Elisabeth before her, she wanted more of it. So in 1763, she requested that even more amber panels be added to the room-- and she asked craftsmen to approach the improvement in a two-fold manner. First, they were asked to use some of the original Prussian amber that had either broken off from the original installation or had never been used, and second, they were to source all new Baltic amber. By the end of this project, in 1770, an additional 400 kilograms of amber were added to the already immense display. And this is the configuration that historians usually refer to today as the quote-unquote final appearance. And for 150 years, the rulers of Russia used the space as a private meditation chamber, as a diplomatic meeting location, and, most importantly, as an awe-inspiring visualization of wealth and power. For a couple of hundred years, it delighted and dazzled- but in the early 1940s, in the midst of the darkest war the world had ever known, fears surrounding this jewel box of a room became a terrible reality.
On June 22, 1941, Adolf Hitler gave the order to instigate Operation Barbarossa, launching 3 million Nazi soldiers to invade the Soviet Union. If you listened to the very first episode of the ArtCurious podcast, you’ll remember that one of Hitler’s big plans was to build the greatest art museum in the world in his hometown of Linz, Austria. In addition, he planned several other outposts throughout his burgeoning empire where other cultural treasures were to be showcased. And what better way to build the greatest art collections in the world than to outright steal the best works of art from all around Europe? Troops throughout the continent were ordered to take as many of these treasures as they came across. And as they moved closer and closer to St. Petersburg, The Amber Room, naturally, was at the top of their list.
Luckily, the curators and other employees of the Catherine Palace, as well as the officials from the other royal buildings of Tsarskoye Selo, were alerted of the approaching troops, so they jumped into action, working all day and all night to safeguard the priceless works of art under their purview. The Amber Room, though, presented a problem. First of all, it was a full installation of amber panels and stone mosaics- not something easily removed and hidden away, as a painting or small sculpture could be. There was also the issue of the condition of the Amber Room panels. Two hundred years of uncontrolled temperatures and humidity, the use of wood burning stoves, as well as the simple ravages of time meant that the original amber panels in particular were extremely fragile. As curators attempted to pry the panel away from the walls, segments began to crack and crumble. Horrified, this is when the realization began to dawn: they couldn't move the Amber Room. How could they protect it, if it couldn't be transported to safety?
Basically, they proceeded with the equivalent of a Hail Mary pass. If the room couldn't be moved, then it could be protected and hidden in plain sight. The amber panels were covered by layers of gauze, wool, and wooden panels before a final touch-thin, decorative wallpaper- was adhered over the top. It was a last-ditch effort to hide the treasure and to protect it from possible damage due to the siege.
But of course, the Nazis saw right through the ruse. They knew what was housed in the Catherine palace and they knew where it was located- the Amber Room was no secret, after all, having been extolled in that spot for a hundred years. So when the German officers captured the palace, it took them less than 36 hours to completely dismantle every inch of the fragile and precious Amber room. Not only did they have orders to capture the room, but they also felt entitled to do so-- the room, they knew, was originally of German design and construction. Therefore, there would be no home more suitable than a triumphant return to the motherland.
The Nazis may not have been as careful or cautious about the deconstruction of the room as the soviets, but they weren't stupid. They knew that the Amber Room was an important cultural artifact and that its safe delivery to Germany was paramount. They packed the panels into 27 wooden crates and shipped it to Königsberg, Germany-- yes, the very same Konigsburg that we today call Kaliningrad, where the most amber in the world is mined and produced. There, the inventory of the room was taken. The Gift Book of the Königsberg museum recorded arrival the Amber Room as item number 200, and described as a present from the Third Reich’s administration of palaces and gardens. Once the crates arrived in Königsberg, it was installed, to the fuhrer's pleasure, in the museum of Königsberg castle, under the watchful eye of the museum director, Alfred Rohde. Rohde himself was a scholar of amber, and was thrilled with the chance to study the relocated Amber room, and spent the next two years documenting and researching the room, particularly its Prussian roots. in 1942 Rohde wrote of the Amber room as quote Königsberg’s finest adornment and spoke of its triumphant return to the motherland. But even in its new German home, the Amber Room still wasn't safe.
As World War Two began to wind slowly down, Rohde received ordered in 1943 to being he the process of disassembling the Amber Room, moving it back into its old crates and prepare it for shipment to safer locales, just as the Russians had done before him. There was a great fear among the Nazis that the Amber Room was going to be stolen back from them, and so they worked as quickly as they could to remove it. That was the last time that the Amber Room, in its original form, has ever been seen and its location known to the public and to history. And things just got worse from there- in 1944, the allies bombed the city of Königsberg, destroying many historic buildings, including the castle museum. The big question, though, has lingered for over seventy years. Did the allied bombing destroy the Amber Room in the process? Or was the work of art dispatched to another location and hidden safely prior to the attack?
Historians have been trying for decades to get to the bottom of the mystery of the Amber Room’s disappearance. As ARTnews Magazine later reported, quote, “The mystery surrounding its fate is to the Russians what UFOs and the Bermuda Triangle are in the West.” If there is one theory that seems to hold the most weight, it’s that the room indeed was destroyed during the 1944 Allied bombings. This is the quote-unquote official story that has been mostly accepted by those most closely involved with the Room and the imperial palaces of St. Petersburg and its surroundings. But we humans just don't necessarily like to leave well enough alone, and as we’ve discovered time and again, sometimes a conspiracy or an alternative theory is just so much more fun than accepting the most obvious explanation. As the years after World War II ticked by, speculation arose that the Amber Room hadn't been destroyed. This rumor was heightened by occasional reports of sightings of the missing panels and mosaics, or the statement of someone whose friend-of-a-friend was a soldier who had either helped to remove the original Amber Room or knew of its supposed current location. Combined, these stories have only stoked the fires of a hopeful rediscovery of the 18th century masterpiece. And really, we shouldn't be surprised that people don't want to believe that the room was destroyed and lost for all time. Remember that many of the same people also believed--and still believe, even in the face of DNA evidence-- that princess Anastasia survived the assassination of the entire Romanov family.
Not that there haven't been enticing tidbits related to the Amber Room that actually had some basis in fact. One of the most exciting leads occurred in 1997, when German art detectives were informed of a man who was trying to sell a purported segment of the Amber Room. Detectives eventually raided the man’s home and found not panels of amber, but one of the mosaics had indeed been part of the original decoration included in the Room. Of course it turned out that the seller’s father had been a German soldier during the war, so it is most likely that he stole the mosaic either during the dismantling at the Catherine Palace or that he had liberated the piece from its shipment crates before it arrived to Königsberg, and it remained in the man’s family ever since.
It begs reiterating that this reappeared segment of the Amber Room was a piece that had most likely gone missing right at the beginning of the raid, or at least not long after. So this discovery, unfortunately, hasn't helped historians and theoreticians come up with many solid lines of investigation as to the fate of the rest of the segments of the room. But that doesn't mean that there aren't a few ideas floating around out there. So What are the other theories, besides its pure destruction, that have gained traction over the years? Well, the first and most obvious one is that the Amber Room, particularly those Prussian amber panels, were indeed originally moved as the Germans had planned. The main thing to support this theory is the timeline-- Rohde and his team received word to begin squirreling away the Amber Room towards the end of 1943, and the castle itself wasn't bombed until August of 1944. This is a significant gap of time during which the crews at Königsberg could have carefully dismantled, preserved, and shipped away the precious treasure. Remember that the Russians had a number of days during which they hoped to hide and protect the Amber Room. The Nazis, in contrast, had months. So then if this was indeed the case, then this changes our question. It’s no longer “What happened to the Amber Room,” it’s “Where is the Amber Room.” An alternate theory has been suggested to take it one simple step further-- what if the Amber Room is still located somewhere in Kaliningrad today, and that it was just moved away from Königsberg castle, which would have been, and was, the main target for the allied bombs? Other segments of Königsberg were rather untouched, so the Amber Room could have been safely housed in other sections of town.
These are the theories that logically seem to hold weight. But that doesn't mean that there aren't some slightly crazier ones along the way to tempt our imaginations. First, there's the supposed shipwreck of the Amber Room-- the rumor that the room was packed up on board of a ship to be transported elsewhere, but that a series of terrible luck and storms caused the ship to sink, and that the priceless room is now sitting somewhere at the bottom of the ocean, lost to us for all time. Others have speculated that the fate of the Amber Room has come about by an accident of forgetfulness-- this one is the theory that I like to call the Raiders of the Lost Ark theory, wherein the room was crated up but then became lost in the shuffle of hundreds of other crates in some vast warehouse. I’m going to go ahead and say that the chances of this one being the real story is probably slim to none and that it’s just a Hollywood daydream.
And then, there are my two favorite theories. The first is that the room was dismantled and then was procured--stolen, really-- by some sort of secret society-- for what reasons, I have not been able to find any information. This secret society has thus hidden away the Amber Room, viciously guarding it from public view. Again, I’m not going to be one to say that something is impossible, but I still think that this is another one inspired by too many Dan Brown novels. And then there’s the very best theory, which stipulates that Stalin, in a prescient foreknowledge of Hitler’s upcoming invasion of the Soviet Union, planned to have a fake Amber Room made and installed in the Catherine Palace while ordering the removal of the real one. That way, when the Nazis did indeed show up at the palace doors with their mission to steal the room, they took hold of the fake and not the real one. Again, this story is so outlandish, and for that reason, I truly love it. But this explanation is the very same one we discussed in ArtCurious Episode 1 about the Mona Lisa-- it seems that the entirety of Europe was swapping fake masterpieces for authentic ones and that those Nazi dumb-dumbs were none the wiser, right? Well, probably not. At least the Mona Lisa story makes a little more sense.
If you want my opinion on the fate of the Amber Room, I’m going to guess that it was probably destroyed--by Allied bombing, by fearful or thoughtless Nazis, or by Soviet troops who may have set crates alight without knowing or caring to verify their contents. But if it wasn't destroyed, it does make sense that the room is still out there, somewhere. Like many of the art treasures stolen by the Nazis during the war, the room may have indeed been dismantled and shipped off to another European location-- just as the Nazis did with the famous Altensee Mine in Austria, where the Monuments Men would eventually liberate thousands of purloined works of art. For this reason, there are stories that pop up in the news every few years claiming that the Amber Room is finally about to be discovered once and for all… and then, it seems we never get the follow up story confirming this fact. The fervor dies down because nothing materializes to support the hypothesis. But maybe that's just because the right location just hadn't been found yet. Not that there isn't a lack of people looking. This year, 2016, alone, I have seen reports of three separate purported locations of the Amber Room-- the first is a follow up to a 2015 report about the so-called Nazi Gold Train, said to be buried far underground in Poland. Though the steam has somewhat dissipated from this theory, the dig to excavate this site actually began only recently, so time will tell if we hear any news from it. In the meantime, another site in Poland has gotten recent buzz as the location of a former Nazi bunker, and a local museum is spearheading the effort there to begin searches there for the Amber Room. And then let’s not forget the power of the amateur sleuth. A German man known for his Nazi treasure hunts is claiming that a former aircraft plant in eastern Germany is the true final location of the jeweled room. It certainly seems that there is a wealth of opportunity surrounding this case, and as time passes, the excitement over a potential rediscovery of the Amber Room only builds higher and higher. I’ll be interested to hear how each of these searches end up, and will keep listeners posted in future episodes of the ArtCurious Podcast.
I truly do hope that the room wasn't destroyed and that we are about to witness the greatest artistic discovery in recent memory. But here’s the grim reality about the Amber Room. Let's say that it wasn’t destroyed in the 1944 bombings. If it is indeed hidden somewhere in a former Nazi stronghold or underground bunker, then chances are very good that the Amber Room will be in very, very poor shape, if not completely unsalvageable by this point. Remember the unsuccessful attempt to remove it from the Catherine Palace before the Nazi invasion. The Amber was too delicate, too fragile, that just by nature of sitting around outside of a strictly controlled environment and access to conservation efforts, it probably will be crumbling to pieces. So even though the Amber Room as we know it today at Tsarskoye Selo is a reconstruction and not the 18th century original, we should be thankful to have it. It gives us a real feel for this insanely incredible creation, and even if the real Amber Room was to magically surprise us and resurface one day, it most certainly would not be stable enough to go on view. And then none of us could experience anything close to its awe and grandeur. Even so, some people say that the recreation is missing a certain something-- a grandeur or sense of awe that was so inherent in the original might not be fully experienced in the 21st century recreation. Indeed, some older visitors who had experienced the original room prior to the war have said that there is something different about the room-- a less mystical, less energizing feeling. If this is true, then the real Amber Room must have been the most incredible sight to see, and I, for one, wish I could have had the chance to see it.
There's just one more thing that sometimes comes up in discussions about the search for the ill-fated Amber Room. It has been said that the relics of the room itself are cursed, and that death and despair will find those who seek to locate it. Of course there’s a curse, right? All lost treasures seem to have curses associated with them. I approach this one with a very heavy dose of skepticism, and not a little bit of eye rolling, but then I have been reminded that there have been occurrences that might be interpreted in this unfortunate way. First, there's the case of the Königsberg castle museum director, Herr Rohde. Rohde and his wife apparently died in 1945 of typhoid the day before Rohde was scheduled to speak with Soviet officials (predecessors of modern KGB) about the disappearance and current whereabouts of the Amber Room. That's weird, but not insanely so. The thing that’s creepy is that the bodies of Rohde and his wife were not found by the Soviets, who came to confirm the deaths-- and the doctor who signed the death certificates for the couple had apparently gone missing, too. Next, there was the terrible death of a Russian intelligence officer known as General Gusev, who was killed in a car accident shortly after supposedly discussing the current whereabouts of the room to a journalist. Most grisly of all, though, is the story of Georg Stein, a German researcher who doggedly hoped to track down the lost treasure. In 1987, he was found viciously murdered in the middle of a Bavarian forest, with his stomach torn open by a scalpel. To date, the murder has never been solved.
So maybe we should just content ourselves with the recreation at the Catherine Palace. At least that one hasn’t been rumored to bring misfortune upon anyone-- at least, not yet.
Hey guys, it’s Jennifer here, coming at you not from November of 2016, but from October of 2017. In the past year, there have been a few updates on the ongoing search for the Amber Room. Of course it’s still going as strong as ever, and it seems that there are new treasure hunters who come forward every few months to alert the media that they are onto something big. In June 2017, authorities in the German state of Thuringia, about 150 kilometers west of the city of Leipzig, gave their approval for a dig to begin near the former concentration camp of Dora-Mittelbau. This has long been a site of interest for Amber Room hunters, groups of whom reportedly petitioned Thuringian authorities multiple times per year for the last couple of decades for permissions to excavate the region. All petitions had been turned down-- until now. Why was this dig sanctioned now? Well, according to news releases, recent archival material from the SS has come to light that conclude multiple undercover deliveries to the region during the war, which had been corroborated in the past by eyewitness accounts. And voila-- a fresh dig occurring to potentially unearth the Amber Room.
But that was nearly six months ago that the dig began. And sure, it may be slow-going, but I’ve heard nothing yet that confirms any discoveries.
Fast forward to just this very month-- mid-October, 2017, and a new group of amateur Amber Room sleuths, also based in Germany, have announced that they have FOUND the Amber Room. This time, it’s in a series of caves in the mountains near Dresden. One of the sleuths, a georadar specialist named Peter Lohr, announced to German media outlets that radar has revealed an intricate system of caves that were known to have been used by the Nazis during the war. Furthermore, he says that they, quote, “discovered traces where steel ropes were used to haul up crates. Georadar and dowsing measurements reveal a system of secret tunnels beneath the cave system itself." The big reveal, though? That particular cave system was a recorded stop on a rail line that, in April 1945, a freight train from Konigsburg had stopped for a short period of time. Konigsburg, of course, being the last known location of the Amber Room.
So-- where does this all leave us? Well, the funny thing is that the three German sleuths who have claimed that they found the Amber Room this month have announced their discovery without undertaking any excavations whatsoever. Their so-called discovery is based only on their radar and geolocating, so now it’s up to them to move forward with a dig to see if their assumptions are indeed correct. How do I feel about this? Honestly-- skeptical. As we heard in the original episode, the Amber Room has eluded us for nearly 80 years, and many have claimed to have a significant lead on the Room for decades. My advice is not to get your hopes up-- and don’t forget that the room would be in significant shambles even if it was discovered. But I would absolutely love to be wrong. It would be incredible if the mystery of the Amber Room was solved once and for all.
Next time on the ArtCurious podcast: can you fool the Axis powers with… an inflatable tank? You bet. And that’s coming up on two weeks-- subscribe now, and don’t miss it.
Thank you for listening to this episode of the ArtCurious Podcast. This episode was written, produced, and narrated by me, Jennifer Dasal. Our new theme music is by Alex Davis at alexdavismusic.com. Research assistance is by Stephanie Pryor, and social media help by Emily Crockett. Our production and editorial services are provided by Kaboonki Creative. Video. Content. Ideas. Learn more at K-A-B-double O-N-K-I dot com.
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